Boston's train tribulations captured in two-act show 'T: An MBTA Musical'Play
Who among us has not had a complaint about the T? Ok, maybe more than one. Do some of these sound familiar? “Fire, smoke, signal problem, police action, switching error…”
Those aren’t just common problems, listed off. They’re actually lyrics from the “The Shuttle Bus Song,” one of the numbers in “T: An MBTA Musical.” (They also throw in “rats” for good measure and “snakes on a train” for laughs.)
This song is one of many in the show, which turns Boston’s train tribulations into a two-act show. The thing about a show that makes fun of the oldest subway system in the country is that the jokes don’t need to change that much over time. You can rely on the T to be, well, unreliable, said Melissa Carubia, who wrote the songs and lyrics for “T: An MBTA Musical” more than 10 years ago.
“I went to school in Boston, I went to Boston College, and so I rode a lot of B [branch] and I saw a lot of crazy shenanigans,” Carubia said, laughing. “But you know what we do? We turn our pain into art.”
Carubia and co-creator Mike Manship, who wrote the book for the musical, submitted the first iteration to ImprovBoston in 2011.
“It was just a treatment,” Carubia said. “We hadn't even written the whole thing yet and they said, ‘We love this! Everybody wants to hate on the T. Let's go.’”
It sold out so fast, they added another weekend. The general manager of the MBTA at the time, Richard Davey, came to see the show himself and even took pictures with the cast. And while the T has had at least nine general managers in that time, this production has only had one, Ray O’Hare.
“He's kind of a very kind of a stark, villainous sort of campy character, played almost like a cartoon villain,” O’Hare said of the character he portrays. “And his job is to make things as just as messed up and confusing as possible.”
Since then, they’ve tweaked it to include some of the big headlines, like the passengers who had to jump out of the Orange Line after it caught on fire.
Cassandra West is a co-producer of the production but started off as a performer in 2021.
“We have a mix of cast members who have been doing the show for a year and a half and cast members who are brand new,” she said. “We're incorporating all of us together and we are like getting our choreography and our blocking tight and our harmonies tight and just driving and having a good time. ”
Manship says the show's intent has never been to bash the public transit system. It's about giving T riders a place to commiserate.
“Our goal is more to give people who experience these daily commuting issues a place to go to to laugh about it,” Manship said. “As the show grew, it became more about not just the transit system, but about the city of Boston in general, because we feel like the T is a model of Boston. And it's really funny how like any city, you can learn so much about the city from the way that a transportation system works."
They have performed on stages around the region over the years. Now, the musical returns to Somerville, starting March 3 at the Rockwell. During a recent rehearsal at The Center for Arts at the Armory, Carubia played the piano for a room of actors, who were rehearsing a song that compares the T to a “prison underground.” There’s also the moment some of the characters accidentally find themselves in Kenmore Station after a game and in come the bros singing “The Bro Song.”
“When the Sox win, it’s a wicked pissah day to be a bro,” they sing, doing chin-ups on the train bars. “Some call us frat boys, some call us yah dudes…But if your collar is popped and your hair is gelled too, raise your red solo cup, you’re a bro through and through!”
The heart of the tale is each commuter has a story, a connection and a complaint about the T. Underneath it all, it’s actually a madcap take on the Wizard of Oz, except there’s no yellow brick road and no Blue Line.
“Three 20-somethings are trying to get around town and live their lives, but the T is getting in their way,” Carubia said. “At the end, they pull back the curtain and find out the problem was within them all along.”
Sadie Piatt plays Alice, a rider of the Green Line, who has a couple of choice words for the train. The disappointment in her voice is palpable as she reads out her letter of grievances. “To Whom It May Concern: I am leaving Boston. Why? Four letters! MBTA. I am a native Bostonian, and I am embarrassed by every aspect of your system."
She doesn’t stop there. Doors that won’t open. Doors that won’t close. It’s failure after failure, but Piatt has a lot of empathy for her train. She compared it, and her character, to “The Little Engine That Could.” Maybe a little slow, but it gets you where you need to go.
“In the show, she is overtired, overworked, overrun, much like America's oldest subway system, the Green Line,” she said. “She feels like she's constantly got to please everybody and she just can't. And at the end, she realizes all she can do is take care of herself.”
Those in the cast have strong opinions about what train line is worse. They all have specific memories: getting stuck in a tunnel, watching the Orange Line catch fire — again. This is all fodder for the constantly evolving show. And then, of course, there are the people who ride the T.
“I remember one time I got on the T and there was a woman who just reached into a backpack and got out a package of raw hot dogs,” Carubia said. “And just started nomming on those raw hot dogs because she was hungry and there's nowhere to cook on the T.”
That hot dog story made it into the musical in a song appropriately titled “The People on the T.”
“T: An MBTA Musical” will be staged at the Rockwell in Somerville, with other dates throughout late winter and early spring.
This segment aired on March 3, 2023.